[eDebate] On personal experiences and the "need" to appreciate them...

Whit Whitmore whit_whitmore
Thu Apr 10 10:26:07 CDT 2008

I wrote none of this. It is all from an article by Suzanna Sherry, but I found it quite interesting and thought I would share:
The heart of radical social constructivism is its denial that human knowledge is based on transcendent reality. The currently popular form of this denial is to suggest that claims of knowledge cannot be evaluated apart from the social roles -- and, in particular, the race and gender -- of those who claim to know. 22 The radical project is to expose "scientific rationality" as just one among many ways of knowing 23 and to demonstrate that intellectual authority derives solely from institutional authority. 24 The Enlightenment claim of reason as the universal solvent is therefore dismissed as merely mistaking a particular white male epistemology for a general truth. For example, Deborah Rhode notes that "knowledge is socially constructed rather than objectively determined." 25 Catharine MacKinnon rejects objectivity and scientific norms as "a specifically male approach to knowledge." 26 Richard Delgado rejects the primacy of "linear, rationalistic thought." 27 William Eskridge suggests that "truth is merely a  [*459]  language game that people play," 28 and Charles Lawrence explores that language game and explains how "racist speech constructs the social reality that constrains the liberty of nonwhites because of their race." 29 John Calmore writes that "[c]ultural bias sets standards for performance in terms of the tendencies, skills, or attributes of white America." 30 Alex Johnson describes "the reality that the Euro-American male's perspective is the background norm or heuristic governing in the normal evaluative context." 31 Postmodernist legal scholars also believe that their attacks have been fatal to the Enlightenment project: many radical intellectuals are convinced that social constructivism and other postmodern philosophies have so undermined the ideas of the Enlightenment that reason has been successfully "displaced by an emphasis on the socially contingent and power-driven nature of conceptions of reality and the ubiquity of often incommensurable perspectives." 32
With reason exposed as only the preferred methodology of a particular class and time, radical constructivists turn instead to the narrative and emotional functions of language. 33 Anecdotal evidence replaces scientific data, and telling stories becomes the equivalent of making rational arguments. 34 Thus, what people say becomes as important as what they can "prove," and the persuasiveness of any given claim rests as much on its noncognitive or emotional appeal as on whether it accords with the dictates of reason and common knowledge. Once the commonality of reason is rejected, knowledge is intensely personal, [*460] communicable only through what many radicals label "transformation." 35
I specifically do not mean to limit reason to a narrowly defined method of thought such as deductive logic or the scientific method. Thus, reason can incorporate what Anthony Kronman, following Alexander Bickel, calls "prudence." 10 What distinguishes reason from alternative epistemologies is its general reliance on basic logic and the evidence of the senses (augmented by scientific discoveries). Certain types of questions are always in order in response to a reasoned argument: "Doesn't that contradict what you said earlier?"; "Is that consistent with the evidence?"; and "If that's true, wouldn't it follow that . . .?" Other responses are always out of order: "This must be true (or false) because the ultimate source of authority (God, the Bible, or some other source) says so"; and "I have faith that this is true regardless of its internal contradictions or its inconsistency with the evidence."
In some ways, it is easier to describe what reason is by explaining what it is not. To be reasonable, an argument need not depend solely on deductive reasoning, but it cannot be illogical. It need not be entirely provable by scientific experiment, but it cannot be inconsistent with everything science and the social sciences know about reality -- until and unless that reality is experimentally proven wrong. 11 Reasoned appeals need not be fully successful, but if they  [*456]  convince no one except those who are already believers, they are probably flawed. Nor are common human emotions entirely excluded. 12 But neither appeals to power nor "strategic arguments designed to persuade [primarily] by their emotional effect on the listener" are consistent with reasoned argument. 13 Reason also stands on its own: neither the identity of the speaker nor her institutional role should be relevant to the persuasiveness of an argument.
Moreover, reasoned argument invites response and must therefore depend on a commonly shared perception of reality. Appeals to a perception of reality shared only by the faithful -- those who have seen the light, as it were -- cannot count as reasonable. Thus, both the popular slogan that "it's a Black thing, you wouldn't understand," and the Calvinist tenet that if one has not received the grace of God one cannot know truth, are concessions that reasoned argument has been abandoned. Attempts at conversion can count as reasoned argument, but only if they do not depend primarily on emotional manipulation. Thus, for me to persuade an unrepentant male chauvinist that gender equality is a good thing, I cannot appeal solely to his love for his mother, wife, and daughter, but I can make arguments about fairness and about consequences. 14 The former appeals may or may not be successful, but they do not count as reasoned arguments.
Participants in a rational dialogue who appear to disagree about fundamental matters can thus still proceed. Imagine a conversation about abortion: 124 one rational participant believes that a woman has a right to do what she will with her own body, the other that the fetus is a human life from the moment of conception. If one can determine that the prochoice participant supports such laws as those against prostitution or drug use, or requiring the use of motorcycle helmets or seat belts, one can perhaps persuade her that her moral reasoning on abortion is inconsistent and its conclusion therefore invalid. Similarly, if the prolife participant allows abortion in the case of rape or incest (but would not kill a live-born child for either of those reasons), or rejects charges of child neglect or endangerment for pregnant women who smoke, drink, or fail to take prenatal vitamins, he might be persuaded to rethink the moral foundations of his views. Once both these forms of reasoning are exposed as erroneous, the participants can begin a less starkly differentiated dialogue about line-drawing and the appropriate balance of needs and interests, much of which will depend on verifiable facts (medical as well as social). The participants may still reach an impasse, but it is much less likely because of their common commitment to the rational process. 125
 [*476]  If religion is injected into the discussion, however, the likelihood of impasse rises considerably. Sincerely held religious beliefs cannot be shaken by rational argument -- that is the heart of faith. Because God's commands need not be rational, logical, or consistent, the response that abortion is contrary to God's will is essentially a conversation stopper. As Judith Jarvis Thompson points out: "Anyone who can say of a batch of fertilized eggs 'Those are children', and believe it to be a literal truth, must surely be immune to argument." 126 If one does not share the underlying faith, one is reduced to arguing about whether the believer has properly interpreted God's commands. That is a sterile argument indeed -- focusing on authority rather than morality -- and one which is particularly unlikely to succeed in the context of any religion that denies individual believers the right to dissent from authorized interpretations. Similarly, the radical appeal to emotion cannot be challenged: the only response to the claim that being "a woman of color" "influences [one participant's] view on abortion" 127 is that being something other than a woman of color -- or even being a woman of color with experiences that might differ from those of the first participant -- influences the view of the other participant. Just as a failure to convert limits the responses one can make to a statement of faith, emotive appeals may "function as an authoritarian conversation-ending move." 128 Reason, then, need not be Cartesian to differentiate itself from other epistemologies: it is possible to converse reasonably without either following a rigid logical sequence or reaching a defined answer, but reason, unlike some other epistemologies, rules certain conversational moves out of order.
The question thus comes down to whether we ought to privilege reason and empiricism over alternative ways of knowing. What, if anything, is wrong with a kind of epistemological pluralism that allows the different ways of knowing to coexist even in the public sphere? I suggest that there are major difficulties with epistemological pluralism. I want to make clear at the outset that I am specifically talking about the public arena. Alternative epistemologies -- especially religious ones -- may satisfy deep human needs, and for that reason alone should be tolerated as individual beliefs. 129 A problem arises only when those alternative epistemologies demand public recognition, support, or influence -- in other words, when we are asked to subordinate reason to another, nonrational, epistemology in making public policy. In one sense, then, I am arguing for a scheme analogous to what one scholar has characterized as the eighteenth-century "schizophrenic conception of God": the rational "Divine Engineer" in public, and the warmer, more mystical "Heavenly Father" for "personal religious  [*477]  experience." 130 Thus, I am directly taking issue with Stephen Carter's complaint that the law treats religion as a hobby. 131 Similarly, I disagree with scholars such as Mary Coombs and Kathryn Abrams, who imply that legal scholarship relying on individual emotive appeals is no less scholarly than that relying on empiricism and rational argument. 132
The primary problem with epistemological pluralism is that there is no way to resolve disputes between epistemologies except by recourse to power. In this, a regime of epistemological pluralism resembles the hostile religious pluralism -- and religious warfare -- that prevailed before the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was in one sense a response to the absence of epistemological authority: "Incompatible appeals to authority seemed equally reasonable, and therefore equally suspect, as well as thoroughly useless as vehicles of rational persuasion." 133 Similarly, in the absence of an agreed epistemology, we cannot mediate between religious traditionalists and radical feminists; whether the traditional nuclear family is mandated or outlawed will depend on who has the most votes. 134 Indeed, despite their common epistemological claims, the radicals and the religionists are often in opposition to one another. Linda Hirshman, for example, claims that the recent religious revival is motivated by racism and sexism. 135 She is not alone; Frederick Gedicks notes that many postmodernists are as suspicious of religion as they are of reason. 136 Similarly, the established religions that rely most heavily on revelation, biblical literalism, and other nonrational forms of knowledge are often least willing to tolerate -- much less endorse -- the feminist and gay rights agendas urged by the radicals. At least some academic defenders of religious epistemologies simultaneously condemn the alternative epistemologies of radical feminists and critical race theorists. 137  [*478]  Only the common language of reason allows us to persuade one another and perhaps to conclude that in some areas -- such as family structure and private worship -- individuals ought to be permitted to make their own choices.
Many of those who argue for epistemological pluralism implicitly recognize that public appeals must take a rational form, since their own arguments rely on reason rather than on revelation. Indeed, it is hard to see how epistemological pluralism can be supported except through appeals to reason. Social constructivists are subject to the obvious criticism that their arguments for epistemological pluralism are also socially constructed and thus necessarily a matter of power relations; why, then, should we accept those arguments unless our own lack of power forces us to? 138 For religionists, whose truths are God-given and therefore necessarily superior to any human truths, granting any other epistemology an equal status is a betrayal of God's omnipotence. Only reasoned argument, grounded in common experience about human needs and the best ways to satisfy them, can yield a conclusion that individualized epistemologies should be tolerated or even welcomed. Moreover, unless we would agree with the medical student who refused to reject even a schizophrenic epistemology as deviant, we also need a way to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable epistemologies. Again, only empiricism and reasoned argument -- about scientific likelihoods, about human happiness and suffering, about the adaptive usefulness of various beliefs -- can allow us to draw such distinctions.
Some, however, have suggested that the historical era of the Enlightenment was unique, and that epistemological pluralism would, in the modern world, create little danger of internecine warfare. 139 This optimism overlooks one of the fundamental differences between rational and antirational epistemologies:  [*479]  because the latter rest on faith rather than reason, they are likely to be impervious to persuasion and resistant to compromise. 140 Moreover, without the skeptical cast of mind fostered by Enlightenment epistemology, antirational epistemologies -- especially religion, with its extrahuman source of authority -- are likely to be conducive to particularly deep conviction. Deep conviction, in turn, is a breeding ground for exactly the religious wars of previous centuries:
In Abrams v. United States, Justice Holmes argued that a logical result of deep conviction is intolerance. As Dean Bollinger has added, failing to attempt to silence what one believes to be false might be seen as a sign of weak conviction. . . . To the zealous adherent, intolerance and persecution become, in a sense, the measure of her commitment to her religious beliefs. 141
Even in the United States, where religion has largely been domesticated (as Michael Perry puts it), 142 we have not been spared all of the violence associated with pre-Enlightenment religious wars. Although, as Perry points out, "we are not the former Yugoslavia or India," 143 the Branch Davidians, the World Trade Center bombers, the abortion clinic killings, and the growth of various organizations -- on the left and the right, not all of them religious -- that use irrational arguments to reject and resist the authority of government, by violence if necessary, should give us pause before abandoning the fruits of the Enlightenment. 144 Indeed, as one historian has pointed out:
If we have now entered an era in which those on the right have been joined by some on the left in assailing reason as faulty because it does not correspond to the essential and incontestable truths they have come to know emotionally, or by virtue of their membership in particular groups, the prospects for deliberative democracy are bleak indeed. . . . If truth resides in difference and emotion, then war rather than persuasion is the only possible consequence of speaking such a truth to power. 145 
Even where violence is unlikely, the practical implications of epistemological pluralism are not likely to please the pluralists. For example, Gertrude Himmelfarb points out that different perspectives on history will inevitably conflict: "If the feminist historian can and should write history from her perspective . . . why should the black historian not do the same -- even if such a history might 'marginalize' women? And why not the working-class historian, who might marginalize both women and blacks?" 146 Currently popular antirationalisms  [*480]  seem indeed to have little in common except their rejection of the Enlightenment. Try to imagine a public school curriculum designed jointly by Bob and Alice Mozert (the religious parents who objected to a standard public school curriculum as secular humanism) 147 and Stanley Fish, Duncan Kennedy, or William Eskridge. Find a single point of agreement -- other than that the Enlightenment was a failure -- between Michael McConnell and Catharine MacKinnon. Even allies within the multiculturalist wing of epistemological pluralism are on the brink of war: women are complaining about sexism within the NAACP, 148 federal laws requiring equality for women in college athletics are viewed as hurting black male athletes, 149 and feminists are themselves divided over whether to accord respect to non-Western cultures that practice female circumcision, a mutilation of female genitalia. 150
The more radical of the social constructivists accept -- and even embrace -- the inevitable consequence of their theory that there is no knowledge, just power. 151 Their project is to expose and alter the hidden power relations. A few even remain epistemologically faithful by refusing to use reason in their scholarship at all, relying instead on "narratives" to communicate what are necessarily private and personal truths. Just as religious conversion cannot be prompted by reason (pace Pascal), this use of narratives is a nonrational attempt to transform beliefs. 152 But whether or not all epistemological pluralists explicitly recognize that their position leaves power as the only means of resolving disputes, it is an inevitable consequence of granting alternative epistemologies equal status.
None of the epistemological pluralists seem willing to confront the practical  [*481]  implications of this reduction of knowledge to power. 153 Stephen Carter, for example, notes that the problem with creationism is not its epistemological pedigree but that, like the proposition that the earth is flat, it is "factually in error." 154 According to both religious and radical social constructivists, however, one cannot make the claim that any proposition is "factually in error" except from within a particular epistemological system. Thus, an epistemological pluralist like Carter should not be making such a statement at all, since he maintains that the rationalism and empiricism on which such "factual" claims are based are no more valid than an epistemology of faith and revelation that might lead to opposite conclusions. Similarly, many of the religious epistemological pluralists castigate Justice Scalia's opinion in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources v. Smith. 155 But Scalia's position instantiates the notion that only power can mediate between different epistemological systems: he is comfortable in "leaving accommodation to the political process" even though that will "place at a relative disadvantage those religious practices that are not widely engaged in." 156 The radical cris de coeur pleading for progressive changes in the law are similarly unpersuasive in the face of the current stolid conservatism of the American people: unless moved emotionally by the academic appeals -- an unlikely scenario -- there is no reason for either citizens or politicians to change their views. "For if ideas are mere reflections of the exercise of power, it becomes difficult to find a basis for criticizing social arrangements." 157 And if reason is not a universal epistemology that can mediate between the different beliefs, but only the belief system favored by the powerful, then whoever is in power will reify his own epistemology. That is the nature of the social constructivist critique.
One rather prosaic example may illustrate, close to home, the dangers of abandoning epistemological objectivity in favor of structures of power. Most academic journals use a blind reviewing system, in order to minimize institutional authority and maximize intellectual authority. They rely, in other words, as much as possible on objective standards rather than on hierarchies of power within academia. 158 Law reviews are an exception; those who select articles are fully aware of the identity, past scholarly achievements, and institutional affiliation  [*482]  of the authors who submit manuscripts. Because law reviews are therefore able to rely more heavily on these indicia of institutional authority, they provide us with a concrete example of the results when epistemological objectivity gives way to power. Those results are not encouraging, especially to those who would challenge the status quo. Unsurprisingly, prestigious law reviews disproportionately publish well-known authors, authors at well-known institutions, and authors at their own institutions. 159 If epistemological pluralists expect that abandoning reason and empiricism will favor their political agendas over those currently in favor, they are likely to be sorely disappointed.
The consequences of accepting epistemological pluralism go much deeper than making some epistemological pluralists look inconsistent or undermining attacks on the status quo, and are much more troubling than simply failing to fulfill the expectations of its proponents. If we cannot confidently assert that the earth is round or that evolution occurred, because those with a different epistemology present a counterargument that is valid in their world even if not in ours, then the same must be true of other scientific or historical statements. It is only the tools of the Enlightenment tradition that allow us to refute such unsupported claims as that virtually all of what we now consider the accomplishments of Western civilization was stolen from black Africans, 160 or that the tragic bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building was the work of agents of the United States government. It is only the acceptance of reason and empiricism as the epistemological standard that allows us to reject such pseudoscientific theories, currently fashionable in some quarters, as that melanin is "one of the strongest electromagnetic field forces in the universe" with the power to make its possessors intellectually superior, 161 or that Jewish doctors are injecting black babies with the AIDS virus. 162 Nor is it a defense that the modern alternative epistemologies advocated by radical and religious scholars do not always lead to such absurdity. 163 The point is that antirational epistemologies, unlike the principles of the Enlightenment, offer no weapons against a variety of intellectual and political atrocities. As Marvin Frankel points out, "for most of Judaism's 5700-plus years, . . . the great Western religions neither caused democracy to happen nor exhibited discomfort about its absence." 164  [*483]  Even today, the religious epistemologies that mandate discrimination against gays and lesbians are indistinguishable from those in the not too distant past that mandated discrimination against blacks. 165
And if the melanin or AIDS myths are not sufficiently silly or frightening, there is a more horrific example of the beliefs that become acceptable when reason and empiricism are demoted as socially constructed epistemologies. Deborah Lipstadt notes that postmodern doctrines have allowed Holocaust denial theories to flourish and to be treated as "the other side," another "point of view," or a "different perspective": 166 
[The postmodern doctrines of Fish and Rorty] fostered an atmosphere in which it became harder to say that an idea was beyond the pale of rational thought. At its most radical it contended that there was no bedrock thing such as experience. . . . Because deconstructionism argued that experience was relative and nothing was fixed, it created an atmosphere of permissiveness toward questioning the meaning of historical events and made it hard for its proponents to assert that there was anything "off limits" for this skeptical approach. 167
Thus, those who deny that the Holocaust occurred are, in an epistemologically plural world, as entitled to demand public recognition of their beliefs as are the creationists, the Afrocentrists, and all the others who reject the epistemology of the Enlightenment. They can demand -- and many defenders of epistemological pluralism, if not current case law, would support such demands from other groups -- that textbooks should reflect the existence and potential soundness of denial theories; that if the public schools teach the Holocaust as a historical event, they must also teach that it may not have happened; that if parents object to their children being taught what they consider a historical fabrication, the  [*484]  children should be excused from history class; that if a state university funds student speech on historical topics generally it must also fund a group dedicated to denying the Holocaust. Lipstadt sees Holocaust denial as "a threat to all those who believe in the ultimate power of reason," 168 but the converse is also true: the denial of the ultimate power of reason is a threat to those who would keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.
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